5. Resistance and Resilience

Achill's residents did not readily comply with efforts at Improvement and many actively resisted efforts by Nangle, the mission, the coastguard and other external forces to change their daily lives. In their manners and methods of resource exploitation, in their selective participation in capital and labour markets and in their continued practice of communal activities, islanders enacted strategies to explicitly resist efforts at control which simultaneously allowed some degree of resilience in cultural practice.

One such practice was that of seasonal migration, in which labourers travelled to England and Scotland for the spring, summer and/or autumn to sow and harvest crops. This practice, well established on Achill by the mid-19th century (Holmes 2000; Dunn 2008), was central to islanders' ability to maintain their landholdings: in the face of increasing rents, low agricultural productivity owing to generally poor land and an absence of employment on Achill, seasonal migration provided one of the only alternatives to permanent emigration, a route chosen by many other Irish in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Seasonal migration helped continue leased landholdings and was supported by communal practice at home; without households working together to care for livestock, tend crops and collect seaweed and turf, only a few households would have been able to send migrants abroad, limiting income to too few people to earn a village's rent. Though women also participated in large numbers in seasonal migration, the practice provided an opportunity for contemporary social critics to highlight their perceived problems with the active participation of women in nearly all of the household's and village's agricultural tasks, including the collection of seaweed and turf and driving and tending livestock (Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6: Woman driving cattle on Achill Island, c. 1900-1920 (Image credit: Eason Collection, National Library of Ireland. Further permission is required for reuse.)

It is important to consider the practice of seasonal or return migration as a conscious decision by migrants who selectively engaged with capitalism and labour economy. The decision provided labourers with 'autonomy of action' (Harris 1980, 7), with the advantage of choosing when and where to work. Agricultural labourers were in great demand in Scotland and England during reaping and harvesting seasons. By the end of the 19th century Achill's labourers became well known for their speed and efficiency (Holmes 2000; Dunn 2008). Migrants were also able to maintain family and community networks by travelling in groups and returning home for the winter, which allowed participation in this traditionally social season of visiting and socialising, reinforcing community and family networks (Harris 1980). This constant return also helped maintain community practices and identities despite exposure to other ways of life while working abroad.

Partaking in this selective practice was not without risk. In addition to general mistreatment on farms, at locations of employment and in cities and towns abroad (The Times 17 September 1885, 4; Law 1915; The Times 9 July 1918, 3; Barber 1982; O'Dowd 1991; Holmes 2000), labourers were exposed to increased danger during travel, when the ships, trains and trucks used for transport commonly became overcrowded. In one such instance, the Clew Bay tragedy of 1894, 33 migrants from Achill drowned on their way to Scotland (The Times 15 June 1894, 9; The Times 18 June 1894, 9). Among the victims were 24 women, ranging from twelve to forty years of age (Quinn 1997, 98). The tragedy itself occurred as over 400 migrants left Achill on a single day, travelling from curraghs to hookers, which were to transfer the migrants to a steamship at Westport. The hookers were not prepared for the large numbers of migrants (The Times 16 June 1894, 12), speculated elsewhere to have been more numerous than expected because a Poor Rate Collector was on Achill collecting repayment for seed loans, the crops of which had failed (Quinn 1997, 98). After the tragedy, Achill became a popular subject in the House of Commons, whose members considered the possibility of regulating ships such as the one that capsized and discussed their ability to legislate the movements of seasonal migrants (The Times 15 June 1894, 10), though these efforts were unsuccessful.

Though it continued as a common and popular practice despite events such as that at Clew Bay, it is not clear that Achill's residents were happy with or wished to continue the practice of seasonal migration; on the contrary, the repeated requests for local employment, including through the construction of fisheries, piers and roads (NAI RLFC2/Z1728: Savage 1845; NAI RLFC3/1/1525: Letter to the Relief Commission April 15, 1846; Tuke 1886; NLI Ms 1891 16K 21(16): Ordnance Survey 1891; Aberdeen 1894) indicate that Achill's residents would have preferred a steady subsistence available through employment at home. Their efforts did not go unnoticed, as one contemporary commented 'the men want to be employed at home instead of going to Scotland, while there is plenty of room in Achill' (Hartland 1895, 69). In 1883, the Office of Public Works received a flurry of requests for harbours, slips and piers as well as roads to access them in all parts of Achill but especially in the north and west, which would have provided both short- and long-term labour in construction and then in fishing for local inhabitants (NAI OPW8/112: O'Connor 1883a; NAI OPW8/357: O'Connor 1883b; NAI OPW8/111: Weldon 1883). All of these potential sources of labour relate directly to the sea and residents appear to have been keen on what resources were most likely to attract the attention of government bodies and investors.

One such entrepreneur, Alexander Hector, established a fishery on Achill and offered limited employment to local residents, though Hector's hiring practices appear not to have conformed to British commentators' preferred ideals. At Slievemore and Dooagh, women carried ice from hilltops to Hector's nearby salt curing stations (Quinn 1997, 98) and men worked at fishing and bringing in bag nets, introduced to the island by Hector, with his boats and other equipment. Hector's fishing stations and ice houses extended throughout Achill and the neighbouring Corraun Peninsula and though this industrial development offered some local employment, many of his workers were also from Scotland (McDonald 1997, 233-38; Meide 2006a; 2006b, 98-102; Meide and Turner 2007, 42-54).

The British government aimed to support ventures such as Hector's fishery by developing Irish coasts in order to accommodate larger, standardised vessels. In 1891, the Congested Districts Board (CDB) was created by the British government and charged with improving the economic infrastructure of Ireland's poorest regions, including all of County Mayo, through the construction of roads, bridges and piers (Seddall 1884, 5, 50-51; Micks 1925). The Achill Missionary Herald published editorials in which officials, including Nangle, bemoaned the absence of suitable piers near the mission and in fact the CDB's recommendations echoed those made nearly a half-century earlier, during the Famine (NAI RLFC2/Z1728: Savage 1845; NAI RLFC3/1/1525: Letter to the Relief Commission April 15, 1846). The absence of piers was not a difficulty for Achill's traditional vernacular boats, which were agile and able to launch and land in a variety of conditions, but it did restrict access to the island by larger British vessels. These vessels included those used by the coastguard in monitoring the movement of boats through Achill's maritime landscape as well as those utilised for growing trade networks and the expanding commercial fishing industry. In the absence of piers, use of these larger British vessels required lighters, which were most often yawls operated independently (Ní Ghallchóir 1997; Kilbane 2001; Cunnane et al. 2008; Mac Cárthaigh 2008), likely by local residents, meaning that British industry and government officials were dependent upon the vernacular craft of native islanders. The policies of the CDB aimed to reverse this dependency.

The CDB endeavoured to stimulate the fishing industry in coastal areas by providing local fishermen with equipment, instruction from Scottish fishermen, by investing money in piers, dredging harbours and through loans and grants for boats of 'improved' design, which included those built to standardised British plans. The CDB also explicitly aimed to reduce or eliminate the use of Irish curraghs and open wooden boats such as yawls, which the CDB sought to replace with larger, decked sailing craft of British design, mainly Scottish 'zulus' and Manx 'nobbys' (CDB Report 1911, 27-28). Whereas vernacular boat types were able to land virtually anywhere on the island, regardless of the tide, the CDB's preferred vessels would have necessitated the very piers and harbours then supported by and in some places under construction by, the British. A replacement of traditional Irish boats with the vessels recommended by the British government would have succeeded in standardising islanders' experiences of the maritime landscape and enabling government surveillance of islanders' activities by forcing Achill's fishermen to follow regular routes with fixed, public points of entry and exit to and from the sea, marked by the imposing facades of British government docks and public buildings (Meide and Sikes 2014).

Though the CDB sought to replace curraghs, Achill yawls appear to have survived better since they more closely conformed to British definitions of proper boat characteristics —particularly characteristics that differentiated British vessels from aboriginal vernacular boats (such as bark and dugout canoes and skin boats) in colonised regions of Africa and North America (McKusick 1960; Adney and Chapelle 1964; Smith 1970), as well as in Ireland under British rule. Yawls, which were planked, wooden vessels built of regularly spaced timbers, also retained traits valued by Irish fishermen resistant to CDB control or interference. Yawls could be easily managed by a small crew and, like curraghs, were shallow-drafted enough to allow islanders many choices regarding where to enter and exit the water: the boats could be pulled ashore unmonitored, despite the presence of coastguard stations positioned to view the coast from high vantage points and newly constructed piers and boathouses on low-lying shores. The yawl's versatility allowed Irish islanders the means to subvert attempts to alter their access routes to and from the sea (Meide and Sikes 2011).

Labour and methods of accessing the maritime landscape were not the only topics over which islanders and government authorities clashed, sometimes in dramatic fashion. As discussed above, conflicts sometimes occurred over the rights to salvage shipwrecked materials. When landlords' agents and bailiffs on Achill tried to sell wood from a shipwreck in 1886, a riot ensued, which included violence against the police attempting to quell the disturbance (The Times 22 December 1886, 6). In the early 20th century, after the Achill Mission had purchased much of the island and during which time many tenants were evicted from several villages (Cosgrove 1995, 109), Anthony Kilcoyne, a resident of Achill, was charged with 'boycotting, intimidation and violence' in 1913 against the Achill Mission Trust. In response to the charges against him, Kilcoyne stated in the Mayo News that 'tenants could not build or enlarge their dwelling house or even a cow-house without the consent of the trustees and if permission was obtained then the rent was raised; that if a tenant kept a piece of driftwood he would be evicted or prevented from putting seed in the ground for one season' (Cosgrove 1995, 113). On an island lacking trees, flotsam, wreckage and other items – even driftwood – that washed ashore would likely have been put to use in some manner and the exercise of control over islanders' access to maritime and coastal resources proved in some cases too much, inciting residents to explicit resistance. Preventing tenants from planting crops as punishment virtually ensured that a household or family would emigrate, as without crops for sustenance through the winter season even migrants returning with cash for labour were unable to maintain landholdings or purchase enough food to endure the winter.

One example of resistance to the government-enforced wrecking policy has been identified on Achill Beg, a small island just off the southern tip of Achill island, both ethnographically and archaeologically. Beaumont (2005, 54) reports that an elderly informant recalled islanders gathering shipwrecked timbers and storing them for eventual use as roofing beams when a newly married couple set about building a home. This salvage and storage was presumably carried out in secret by the community, in order to evade detection by the coastguard stationed on Achill Beg. During a maritime landscape survey of Achill in July 2005, archaeologists discovered the remains of a ship timber that had been modified and used as roofing timbers in a ruined stone house on Achill Beg (Meide 2006a, 55-61). This hull member was identified as a ship's keel, confirming local memory and implying a communal and probably non-violent resistance to a British maritime policy perceived as unfair.